After being sidelined by the writers strike last season, "24" (8 p.m. today and Monday, KVVU-TV, Channel 5) is returning to action in a brave new world.
Well, maybe not brave -- most of the show's rookie crop of good guys are so timid and hamstrung by political correctness, you'd swear they sprang from a skit during talent night at Dick Cheney's secret bunker -- but it's definitely new.
As the seventh season begins, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is on trial, about to be indicted by the Senate for having spent the past couple of decades as a walking, talking human rights violation.
But before the subcommittee can get to the truth -- sure to be some of the most disturbing testimony since the whole Clinton-Lewinsky mess -- plucky FBI agent Renee Walker (Utah Shakespearean Festival alum Annie Wersching) arrives with a subpoena. It seems Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), the CTU agent killed off back in season five, is not only very much alive, he's running a domestic terrorist group. And agent Walker needs Jack to go back on the clock to help find him.
The FBI is running things now because the Counter Terrorist Unit, which for the past six seasons provided technical support for Jack and cannon fodder for the bad guys, has been disbanded. And, really, it probably was time, considering that over the years, more bad guys walked through the doors of CTU's headquarters than Pam Anderson's bedroom.
And while the FBI needs his help, Jack's by-the-book handlers are so terrified of his extreme methods, they do everything short of strapping him to a dolly, Hannibal Lecter-style.
"What's the alternative, Jack? Break in and torture the guy like you used to?" "We're the FBI, not CTU. We honor the law, even when it's not convenient." "Jack, you're coming with me, and you're doing this my way." "Just remember, this is an FBI operation. We work within the confines of the law." And that's just in the first hour.
As for Tony's still being alive, Jack keeps muttering stunned variations on "I watched him die in my arms!" Yeah, well, you also watched him get shot in the neck in season three, undergo major vascular surgery and be up and running around a couple of hours later. Get over it.
As for this season's plot, somebody on the writing staff has been watching too many Bruce Willis sequels. Tony and his thugs hack into the FAA's computers and impersonate air traffic controllers, putting planeloads of passengers at risk, a la "Die Hard 2." They also breach the firewall that protects the nation's infrastructure, giving them control of everything down to the power grids, as in "Live Free or Die Hard." (Sadly, no one thought to bring along Samuel L. Jackson from "Die Hard with a Vengeance.")
The requisite subplots include Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), the drama's sixth onscreen president, having to decide whether to send troops to stop the Sangala genocide that was the focus of November's "24: Redemption" movie, as well as her husband, Henry (Colm Feore), looking into the cover-up in the death of their son.
But, as always, the real focus is on Jack, who's let himself end up like a dog that's been beat too much, or some other Springsteenism. This season's first four episodes find him just going through the motions, resigned to a likely prison sentence, and more broken than he was after being tortured for 20 months in a Chinese prison.
"It's better that everything come out in the open," he solemnly tells an FBI baby sitter, who can't believe Jack's having to answer to the Senate for any of his actions. The people, Jack says, "deserve to know the truth, then they can decide how far they want to let us go."
It's a strange place for TV's greatest action hero to be, given that he usually stops to reflect about as often as he stops to eat or pee.
And he'll have to snap out of it sooner or later. After all, expecting Jack not to break a few laws and even more bones is like expecting a duck not to quack or this season of "Heroes" not to suck.
But so far, all work and no kneecapping terrorists is making Jack a dull boy.
Christopher Lawrence's Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.